Matthew 2:1-2, 7-12
The story of the wisemen and their gifts has captured the imagination of the readers of the Gospel of St. Matthew for centuries. There are many reasons for that.
There is something about magicians that have fascinated the human community as far back in time as we can go. Whether magicians are simply conjurers using sleight of hand, or real miracle workers, there is something about them that grabs our attention. (I must confess that I too have joined the multiplied millions in reading and viewing the wizardry of Gandalf the Grey in the works of Tolkien, and of Harry Potter in J. K. Rowling’s novels.)
Besides magicians attracting our attention, so have the stars. People have been stargazers for as far back as we can trace. Humans have always been astronomers. But we have often been astrologers too, for even in our science-saturated world millions continue to check their horoscopes, sensing that the stars in their courses may influence us in our course of life.
The third thing that fascinates the child in every one of us is the giving and receiving of gifts. Gift-giving is one of the highlights of the Christmas season. Gifts are given and received at almost all important occasions. And gifts hidden inside bright wrappings are particularly inviting.
It may well be that these three things have caused us to embellish the Christmas story over the centuries. Some read into the three gifts matters of great significance. Gold, they say, for a King. Incense, for a Priest. Myrrh, for one who is to die. But that spin may be due more to clever artistry than accuracy.
And in our legends we have given names to the wisemen from the east. Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. We have dressed them up in colourful costumes and made them into three kings from the orient. We have drawn them from the three continents that bordered on Palestine. Asia to the East, Africa just to the South and Europe to the North.
This morning let me try to read St. Matthew’s mind. Let me try to paint the picture that Matthew’s readers would have envisioned upon hearing his words.
The gifts that were brought
Let’s look at the three gifts that were brought that day.
Gold. Gold needs little explanation. It has always been a valued metal. It is beautiful. It does not tarnish. It is pliable. It is in short supply. All of that has made it a thing of value, and the basis of much of the world’s commerce. To this very day the fluctuations in the value of gold are given on the daily news. Many of us to this day wear something made of gold or its imitation. It is a thing of beauty and a joy forever!
Frankincense. Incense is relatively unknown in our culture. For us it has minimum value. Incense is created from a white resin, obtained by making incisions in the bark of various trees found in Somalia and Arabia. It had to be imported since it was not found in most of the Asiatic or European world. It released a wonderful fragrance into the air when burnt. Why would this be so valuable? In a world with no deodorant soap, where homes, and palaces and sanctuaries absorbed the smell of people and animals, where the smells of burnt sacrifices and cooking lingered long in the air, something that would add a fragrance to cover up the smells was highly valued. The rich of the world would pay whatever they needed to, to give their noses a break.
Myrrh. Myrrh too is unknown in our culture. Like incense it was created from the resins of a thorny shrub, grown in Ethiopia and Arabia. The resin produced a very pleasant scent. When it was dissolved in oils it created fragrant perfumes and lotions. It was used in the Holy Anointing Oil for the coronation of kings and the ordination of priests. Myrrh was used to anoint a body for burial. It was used in a bride’s preparations for her wedding. It had some drugging effect when used in wine, and made the wine more aromatic. It was the ancient equivalent of Channel #5, and like modern perfumes was a very costly thing. In a world filled with unpleasant odors, if one could perfume one’s self with Myrrh and the air with frankincense, life would be far more pleasant.
When the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon: (I Kings 10:10) “she gave the king 20 talents of gold, a great quantity of spices, and precious stones.” And then the writer of the book of Kings adds this footnote, “Never again did such spices come in such quantity as that which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” What a gift!
The three gifts were held to be of great value.
Who brought the gifts?
We are looking at the gifts, but we do need to ask, who brought these three gifts? That might make a difference in how we understand the significance of these gifts.
Through the years all sorts of options have been suggested regarding the identity of these travelers. The Christmas carol, “We three Kings of Orient Are” has tipped the scale towards them being kings. Some translations of the Bible often use the words “Wisemen from the East.” and we imagine long bearded philosophers like Plato or Aristotle. But Matthew calls them Magi. Magicians. They were dabblers in magic. They were astrologers. They were stargazers. They were sorcerers. Necromancers. The men were often called wizards and their female equivalent were called witches.
These dabblers in magic were perfectly at home in the Roman Empire. Magicians could be found hanging around the courts of Kings, and the camps of army generals. They were invited to state occasions to give their counsel. They read the signs in the stars and the omens in the entrails of animals. They gave crystal ball readings to those wanting a peek into the future.
We know that Tiberius, the ruler of the Roman Empire, who reigned at the time Jesus was born, read the signs in his horoscope before making any decision. We know that in the Synagogues of Judaism the signs of the Zodiac were put into the mosaic of the floors. And when the magicians visited the birthplace of Jesus it may not have been an unusual sight.
Why did they bring these three gifts?
The question is raised, however, why do these magicians bring the gifts of gold, incense and myrrh to the birth of this child. There are three possible answers.
They brought their most precious gifts.
Some have suggested that the gifts that they brought were expensive gifts. Perfume and air fresheners and gold were items of great value. All were imported gifts. And these international travelers wanted to give some of the most valued commodities of that ancient world to the child just born into the world. They are very expensive baby shower presents. They are following the directives of the hymn, “Give of your best to the master.” They are giving the things they count most valuable. And if needed, these things could easily be sold anywhere for hard cash to help the young family get established. They were “as good as gold.”
Gifts for a Royal Person.
The gifts however may have had a deeper significance. When we read through the Old Testament, we notice that these three gifts were the gifts that one often brought to kings. (I Kings 10, Psalm 72:10-15, Isaiah 60:6) They are the kind of gifts you do not give simply because they are expensive, but because they are the gifts that protocol suggests one gives to Royalty on state occasions. They are the gifts that are offered on bended knee in the act of giving homage to a King. These men are giving their tribute, paying their taxes, to Him whose right it is to rule them. They are involved in an act of submission to their sovereign. They are declaring this child to be their King.
Brought the tools of their trade.
There is one other facet to these three gifts, however, that we need to recognize. These men are not kings. They are not ambassadors from other nations. They are not simply guests who have invited themselves to a baby shower. They are magicians who work spells, speak incantations, do magical deeds to manipulate the activities of the gods of the universe.
All the gifts that they brought were traditionally used by magicians in the exercise of their trade. Magical charms were written in ink made from Myrrh. It made the incantations all the more powerful. They threw the dust of incense into the fire to create bright explosions and plumes of smoke to razzle-dazzle their audiences. With clouds of instant smoke, bright lights, and overpowering fragrances, it made the magic of their arts even more dramatic. And then magicians have long had the reputation of being able to change lead or base metals into gold. They were known as alchemists. With sleight of hand a dull copper coin can be changed into gold before our eyes.
These magicians may well have been declaring the abandonment of the tools of their trade, the instruments of their magical arts. They are forsaking their former practice. Matthew tells us that after they had surrendered their gifts, they went home by a “different way”. It could mean that they took highway 3 instead of the transCanada, but it could also mean that they went home, different kind of men, with a different way of responding to life. Some of the early fathers of the Christian Church said that in this moment the decline of magic was begun. The age of superstition was on its way out. These Magicians left the tools of their trade at the feet of the Christ child, to practice their magic no more.
Why does Matthew tell us of this event?
Matthew lived in a magical world. Every strata of the ancient world, whether Egyptian, Roman or Jewish was infested with superstition and the superstitious. These astrologers roamed the world offering their gypsy wisdom to all who could pay. However, astrology was not simply a claiming to know what the future held. It claimed that the astrologer had the power to influence the course of events. Cross his palm with money, and a magician was able to speak magical incantations that supposedly made the gods behave themselves. Magic was a way of getting the gods under human control. If you could say the right words you could make the gods do what you needed them to do. Or so that ancient world thought.
Did Matthew believe in magic? Is he supportive of the magician’s arts? Does he include the magicians in his story to say that they were “OK” guys? Oh no. The Christian church became the great opponent of magic, astrology and the superstitious. They believed in the miraculous, but not the magical. They believed in the supernatural, but had no intention of being superstitious. They knew that God did unusual things in human life. But they knew that they had no control over the activity of God.
At most they saw themselves as spectators of the great acts of God. But they were not manipulators. They might pray to God, but they knew that there was no power in prayer. Prayer was simply asking God to help them. There was power in God. None in prayer. But God could be invited to intervene, but no spells, no incantations, no rituals, no liturgy could ever force his hand. He is Lord, not us.
So why does Matthew include the magicians? To tell us that they submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. They left their magical arts at his feet and went home no longer depending upon magic, but upon the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. When the early apostles traveled through Asia and into Europe, they apposed magicians such as Simon Magus and Elymas the Sorcerer. In Ephesus the new converts take their books of magic, books of immense value, and burnt them. (Acts 19:19) The requirement was always: “leave your sorcery and turn to the God for your guidance. Quit trying to get a hold on God, let Him get a hold of you.”
So what word does this have for you and me on this Sunday in advent? We too are invited to come to Christ. We too might want to leave a gift.
We can give to him the things we value the most. It might be money; it may be time. It may be our energies and abilities. In the giving of gifts, we can give him the leftovers of our days and ways, or, like the magi; we can give him the things we count most precious. King David said long ago, “I will not offer unto the Lord that which costs me nothing!”
Or, we might want to be like the Magi, and bow the knee before him and give, not so much our gifts as gifts, but give our gifts as tokens of giving ourselves to him. We can give to him our allegiance, accepting him as the Lord of our life’s affairs. We can invite him again to be sovereign Lord of our lives.
Or we might want to leave something that has become too dangerous for us. We can leave behind those things we know have been hampering God’s rule in our lives. We can surrender our swords. We can give up fighting him. We can surrender the sins that dog our days. We can give up an old grievance that weighs continually upon our minds. We can give up those things that we know he dislikes in our lives.
You may have noticed that in the advent wreath there are 3 purple candles. They are the same colour as the candles of the Lenten Season. During Lent we usually give up something that pampers our lives, or that is not good for us. During this season too, we may want to surrender to him all that undermines our lives.
At Christmas we exchange gifts. God has given the best gift of all. He has given himself in His Son. In exchange, what gift does God wants you to give to him? Something of value? Something harmful? Yourself?
Perhaps it was a good move to quit calling these men Magicians, and instead call them Wisemen. It was a wise thing they did. It would be a wise thing if we were to follow suit.